“O, Felix Culpa!”

The loveliest Easter words

For me, the loveliest words in the whole Catholic Easter vigil service come in the long opening proclamation, the Exultet. Those words, in Latin, are “O, felix culpa.” They translate in English as “Oh, happy fault.” Crucifixion, happy?

The point is, without Adam’s sin, the “happy fault,” there would be no crucifixion. And without crucifixion, there would be no resurrection.

Instead of attending Easter service last night, sheltering-in-place, we watched a live staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on YouTube (Andrew Lloyd Webber offered it free for forty-eight hours from Friday through Sunday.) I’d seen the much milder movie version in June 1973, but the stage play was stunning in its intensity and deeply moving in its message. I was swept away by the portrayal of Judas Iscariot, not as a coward and traitor, but as a loyal devotee and faithful adherent to Jesus’s original vision and mission. In the play, he gave Jesus up not because he did not love him, but because he did and could not bear seeing Jesus appear to lose his focus on the poor. During the scene in which Judas recognizes that he will forever bear the blame for Jesus’s death and therefore hangs himself, the words, “O, felix culpa,” came to me. Without betrayal, no death. Without death, no resurrection.

Healing our divisions

As we make our stumbling way through the pandemic, I wonder if someday the coronavirus will be remembered as a “felix culpa,” a happy fault. When we who survive look back, might we see the virus as having healed us of the divisive partisanship, the political and social viruses that beset us now?

If the “cheerleading” continues from the White House podium (Who is cheering? Why do we need a Cheerleader-in-Chief?), might the roughly 40% of us who click “Yes” on the pollster’s question “Do you support President Trump?” start clicking “No”? Might both the right and the left recognize that the fear we carry is common to us all, not a product of ideology? Might we wake to the realization that we value the life and civilization we share? Might we get it at last that being human is more precious than being conservative or liberal, than being White or of color, than being citizens of the U.S. or of Europe or China or Saudi Arabia or Iran?

“Oh, happy fault,” this coronavirus, if it were true. But probably it will not be true.

Our America

More likely, I’m afraid, we seem to be a perennially immature people, unable to put aside our ingrained beliefs and attitudes toward one another and learn the lessons of our catastrophes. Example: The Civil War killed more than 750,000 Americans from the North and the South. One decade later, when Reconstruction was demolished, it was replaced by the ruthless repression of African Americans and reduction of their freedom almost back to slavery status. Jim Crow remained the rule in the South (supported by both overt and covert racism in the North) until the 1960s, and in the last twelve years, White supremacy again rears its ugly and violent head: No lessons learned that could help us survive as one people.

In World War I, 116,708 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded. The surviving soldiers brought home the “Spanish flu,” the worst pandemic in world history. An estimated 675,000 Americans died in the pandemic. No sooner than we’d recovered from both catastrophes, our nation embarked on the Roaring Twenties, a decade-long orgy of conspicuous consumption, financial narcissism, and blindness to the unsustainability of the revelry. For all the fun, though, the plight of African Americans under Jim Crow remained as debilitating as ever, and income inequality was probably even worse in the 1920s than it is today. The Twenties delivered our country to the Crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression: No survival-worthy lessons learned. 

My point is that national catastrophes do not seem to teach Americans much. 

“O happy fault”?

More likely, the combined damage of the coronavirus and the collateral devastation of the economy will likely leave us with a profoundly wounded and different country and world. If we refuse to learn the lesson that we are all in this together, unchecked naïve partisanship and blindfolded ideology will end our time as the great democracy we have sometimes shown we are capable of sustaining. Like Alexander’s Greek empire, like Nero’s Roman empire, like Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spanish empire, like Henry’s English empire, like Napoleon’s French empire—we will be diminished as a meaningful player on the world stage.

On the other hand, if the pandemic and the fragility of our economy shock us awake so we can see our common stake and our bond as citizens of a country founded upon a noble truth—that we are all equal—then it may be we’ll survive.

 If so, “O, felix culpa.”

Political Rhetoric in an Era of Division: Republicans Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Political Rhetoric is a Literary Form


In this blog, I reflect on many things gathered under the rubrics of “Psyche, Story, Spirit” – the wide range of psychological, literary, and spiritual issues that concern me. To me, the rhetoric of the emerging presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side, presents quite a story, its field littered with psychological intrigue – and maybe pathological intrigue. From my conversations with people, many Americans feel disspirited when we hear or read the debate. Since my chief interest in this blog is about writing, a form of rhetoric, I’ve been reflecting on what the campaign is doing to the language of our public conversation. This in turn brings me to two exemplars of political rhetoric in eras of deep division: Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln.


Trump                                           Lincoln

The Contexts Facing Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln

First, let’s consider the fact that Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s approaches to political speech emerged in two politically very similar epochs. The first was the period 1846 -1865. 1846 was the year Dred Scott first sued for his freedom, and 1865 was the year of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. At that point, the bloodied nation was concluding the Civil War. Even more consequentially, the soon-to-be-reunited states needed to reconcile after three generations’ conflict over states’ rights and slavery. In March 1865, although the Confederacy was losing the war and the issue of slavery was settled, the Reconstruction loomed contentious. People both honest and cynical, on both sides of the issues, fully and loudly voiced opinions about the role of government, states’ rights, and the status of the newly freed African Americans. There was great tension in the air.

Ours, the second period, I somewhat arbitrarily date from 1980, when the “Reagan revolution” began, through the present. Now, we can observe its second generation, the Tea Party TeaPubicanParty and it’s heroes Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and the rest, promoting the politically divisive and racially controversial attitudes reminiscent of the pre- and post-Civil War era. I say the dating is arbitrary because although the Reagan revolution, bent on overturning the New Deal, achieved power in 1980, it had been brewing since the 1930s. Even in 1980, however, the debate was a conversation about ideas, not persons; it was sometimes calm, occasionally contentious, but usually civil. Reagan, for all his rhetoric (“guv’ment is the problem”), grew the government, and he collaborated with his opponents, led by Tip O’Neill, Democrat Speaker of the House.

Key Rhetorical Approaches from the Two Eras: Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Lincoln’s Speeches

Mr. Trump’s Political Rhetoric

Against this background, it is instructive to look at key rhetorical approaches from these two eras. For that comparison, I offer the rhetorical styles of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln on the salient issues of their day. Let’s consider first a quote from Donald Trump’s website, concerning Latino immigrants to the United States:

In recent weeks, the headlines have been covered with cases of criminals who crossed our border illegally only to go on to commit horrific crimes against Americans. Most recently, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64 year-old women’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her. The Police Chief in Santa Maria says the “blood trail” leads straight to Washington.

(Note: If you follow the link to the phrase “blood trail” in Mr. Trump’s statement reveals quite a different, and more complicated, story than his statement implies. I don’t have space here to go into the rhetorical sloppiness – or dishonesty – of his implication, but I will suggest that his use of the police chief’s opinions adds no rigor, but does cheapen, his arguments.)

Or consider this, from Mr. Trump’s stump speech against the Iran nuclear agreement:

“We are led by very, very stupid people.”

On his website, Mr. Trump continues, “It was amateur hour for those charged with striking this deal with Iran, demonstrating to the world, yet again, the total incompetence of our president and politicians.”

You’ll notice in all these quotes, which I think fairly represent the overall rhetorical tactics of Mr. Trump’s campaign, the approach is to attack the persons, not to discuss the issues. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement, the issue for discussion is the terms, not the intellectual adequacy of the diplomats from the six major Western powers. The old-fashioned word for this is the ad hominem argument – if you cannot win debate on the issues, attack the character of your opponent.

The other Republicans offer nothing else than rehashes of Mr. Trump’s talking points, Repub.Debate which raises an interesting side question about his rhetoric: Did Mr. Trump create the talking points himself, or did he borrow someone else’s? Is he as independent as he likes to claim? Moreover, aside from personal attacks, do the Republican candidates have any ideas to offer?

In short, Mr. Trump’s (or his colleagues’) rhetoric seems designed to promote anger, division, and contempt for those who disagree with him – a tactic borrowed by Tea Partiers from many strains of radical politics before them. On other issues such as immigration and women’s health, his talking points, and those of the other candidates on the right, follow the same plan.

Mr. Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric

In contrast, let’s turn to the speech of a politician who suffered personally for opposing the very sentiments espoused by the proto-Tea Partiers of the 1850s and 1860s, a politician who exactly one month after his speech would be assassinated for it, the ultimate ad hominem argument. Abraham Lincoln, who had every reason to feel profound anger with his opponents in both the Confederacy and in his own Congress, refused to speak harshly about them in his Second Inaugural Address. Instead, he sought the common ground.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully. …

Then Lincoln ended his address thus:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .”: No ad hominem appeals, no calling forth the baser emotions of anger and hatred, and indeed, a firm rejection of them as a national ideal.

Would that the Republican politicians of 2015, 150 years after their party’s first great hero, could adopt his rhetorical style. That is, would that they could accept the burden of healing our divided nation, bringing mutually wounded opponents to the table of reconciliation. Our political psyche, our national story, and our community spirit would be profoundly changed, and richly nourished.

But if they cannot manage this, can you and I?